As the morning shed its first light on the city Nanjing and the city gradually waking up from the serene night, we were setting off to our weeklong trip to the Silk Road. Students were chatting in twos and threes on our way to the airport, the tiredness of waking up early couldn’t even affect the excitement of our adventure to the ancient trading route. A road which lead us back to where Chinese civilizations started, and to see China as a huge country with incredible diversity. Our trip is going to begin at the starting point of the ancient Silk Road: Xi’an, a wondrous city with history dating back thousands of years, the biggest city in Northern-west China. Then we will further travel to the inner western area Xiahe, an area strongly influenced by the Tibetan Buddhism. Eventually our trip will end in the mystique city Dunhuang, an oasis in the middle of the desert, a resting place for the weary travelers and a praying hideout for those devout Buddhist.
The ancient city Xi’an welcomed us with warm sunshine and splendid clear sky, which was a rare occasion according to our local guide. The lunch was a dumpling banquet which was served with dumplings in different colors, flavors, shapes and sizes. The highlight of the meal was the soup cooked with mini-dumplings. Students curiously learned the fun fact that luckiness is determined by the number of dumplings you get in your bowl according to the local customs.
That afternoon we visited the Great Mosque: a nationally famous Islamic temple in Xi’an.The mosque is a combination of traditional Chinese architecture and Islamic art, a series of baronial pavilions in Chinese style, with walls decorated with beautiful Islamic art. The atmosphere was serene calming and peaceful, we were very surprised that such place exists in the clamorous city center. Our guide Chris used both Chinese and English for explaining the sites to us when he knew the students were Chinese language learners, introducing the basic simple information in English and clarifying detailed information in English, which helped the students to understand the city through the language they have been learning.
As the night time arrived, the Muslim quarter was packed with people. It is an open kitchen area where you can taste the delicacy of the northwestern region, a unique cuisine that combines Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors with delicious lamb barbecue with sizzling flames, tasty ruby colored pomegranate juice, famous hand-ripped buns in lamb soup, and “burgers” with meat fillings.
The second morning we visited the Xi’an city wall, the most well-preserved wall in China, which surrounds the entire inner city area in 12 square kilometer. We all rented bikes and went biking along the walls, experiencing the contrasting beauty of the ancient city on one side and taller modern buildings on the other. A lot of students said that this was what we needed to get a great view as well as a good morning workout of this historic fortification.
Two of our students, Amanda Heston and Elizabeth McCooney had their birthdays during the trip, Liz on November 2nd and Amanda’s 21st birthday on November 4th. Though they were far away from home in a foreign country, we wanted them to feel the warmth of their CIEE families in China. Our CIEE program is like a big family that cares and looks after one another. We surprised them with cakes and celebrated their birthdays during lunch in Xi ’an. Everyone sang the “Birthday song” in Chinese and English. Amanda said that it was a special birthday for her because not everyone could celebrate their 21st birthday on the Silk Road.
Celebrating Amanda and Liz’s birthday together
Later on, we went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, the eighth wonder of the world, and of course, what the ancient city of Xi’an is known for. We were amazed by the fact that these warriors of huge quantity were made thousands of years ago. The techniques and tools they used contained such high standard of craftsmanship. What was more astonishing was that no two warriors were the same, each warrior bears different expression as well was posture. In addition, we were lucky to be able to see archaeologists still working on site to remodel and restore the destructed pieces. The slight and attentive procedures they undertake at various stages of excavation were quite impressive.
After arriving at Lanzhou after taking the overnight train, we continued driving for several hours before arriving at the Liujiaxia Reservoir. The backdrop of landscape has transformed into a yellowish splendor of sand mountains continuing with no ends. As we approach the reservoir, our sight was replaced with and enormous water area of crystal blue. It was like seeing sea in the middle of the desert. To get to our destination, Bingling Temple, the only way was through speed boat. The bumpy speed boat ride with splashing water was another fun experience for all the students as we soared through the open water.
The Bingling Temple is a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River. We learned that each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery of the representing dynasty with distinct characteristics. These caves culminated at a large natural cavern and finally lead us to a hidden cliff-side of the giant Maitreya Buddha. We took a lot of fun pictures and some students were curious and wandered a bit further to the valley to see the river. It was really peaceful and tranquil there making us thinking of the ancient devout believers who built the Buddhist sculptures along the riverbank.
The visit to Labrang Monastery was our last stop in Xiahe. The white walls and gilded roofs of the monastery feature a blend of Tibetan and Indian Vihara architectural styles. The view is spectacular. There were lots of Tibetan people circling around the stupa, chanting prayers and following the prayer wheels while entering the monastery. A monk in the monastery gave us a guided tour though the halls and institutes domed with golden roofs and the interior prayer halls with images of the various Buddha. The experience was spiritually inspiring and impossible to describe. We also came across a square where hundreds of monks were gathered debating on different aspects or reciting sutra. One of the students Amanda got into a light conversation with one of the local Tibetan mother visiting the monastery with her son. She told us that she lives in the nearby village and visit the monastery nearly every day, for here it’s a peaceful place to pray for her children and family. Smelling the yak butter aroma inside the montastery, hearing the chanting of prayers by the Tibetan monks and seeing the pious Tibetan people kowtowing in front of the halls, we were all in awe of this scared place.
The overnight train took us to the last stop of the trip- Dunhuang, the time spent on the train was a very pleasant experience for all of us. It was a perfect bonding time, students mingled with each other in small train compartments having “life talks”, discussing “serious topics” or the fun experiences.
The city of Dunhuang was without doubt the highlight of the entire trip. We saw the Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan (Singing-Sand Mountain). It is indeed a place of spectacular natural beauty. We rode camels through the pale golden sand dunes, and enjoyed the beautiful wavy shapes of the smooth yellow dunes against the deep blue sky. Some students voted this site as the number one favorite through the entire trip.
The visit to the Mogao Grottos the next day gave us the chance to experience culturally this great repository of Buddhist art. Although the painting on the wall have been worn or damaged, but you can still perceive the generous faith in the exquisite and meticulous drawing. The Mogao grottos are indeed, according to one of our student, “a museum of visualized history”.
Coming back to Nanjing is like waking up from a dream, and again we are settling down again to our daily studies and works. We were able to experience a whole new side of China that we have never imagined before. Through this trip, our students have experienced a splendorous cultural heritage, the diversity of China in geography, ethnicity, religion, food and lifestyle, which I hope will inspire them to dig deeper as they live and study in China.